Hours after confirming to reporters that the United States had found its fourth-ever case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, John Clifford was ready to answer the world's questions about the safety of U.S. beef.
Clifford, the government's chief veterinary officer at the agriculture department, had quickly called his counterparts in Mexico and Canada, the first and second-largest buyers of U.S. beef, to tell them about a California cow found to have an "atypical" type of the brain-wasting disease.
Having taken up his post in May 2004, just six months after the first U.S. case of BSE was discovered, he knows that sharing information quickly during the next 24 hours -- and in the weeks ahead -- will be vital for reassuring consumers, both domestic and foreign.
"It's critically important for the trust and continuing of the trade between those countries," Clifford said in an interview, trying to pre-empt concerns about the nation's herd that could send the multi-billion U.S. industry into another tailspin.
Clifford explained in a USDA video the natoin's system of strong interlocking safeguards designed to protect human and animal health. Watch the video above.
The first case of BSE at the end of 2003 caused a $3 billion plunge in beef export revenues. Foreign trade did not fully recover until 2011.
Two more cases followed, the last in 2006. But since the disease was discovered in 1986, the international incidence of BSE has dramatically dwindled to only 29 cases last year, down from a peak in 1992 of more than 37,000.
"I think we've come a long way since then, and I think it's important for our trading partners in the world to start treating this disease the way it needs to be treated," he said.
He said the USDA will release information in coming weeks as it traces the epidemiological history of the cow - where she was born, what she ate as a young calf, and what happened to its "cohorts," other calves born on the same farm in the same time period.
Part of the U.S. message will be that the type of BSE disease found is "atypical," meaning that it was much less to have come from contaminated feed.
"It is a rare form, and it is also something that we believe not to be likely to be passed from feed to feed," Clifford said.
STRUGGLED TO REGAIN ACCESS
Since 2003, when the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, was found in a Washington State cow that had been imported from Canada, the United States has struggled to regain full market access to Japan, its previous top buyer, as well as in Korea, Taiwan, and China.